There were a number of Los Angeles Rams players who were asked to step up in a big way on Sunday on their way to a Week 1 victory against the Carolina Panthers. Rookie safety Taylor Rapp and fourth-year safety Marqui Christian filled in nicely after safety Eric Weddle was forced out of the game with a concussion. On the other side of the ball, Malcolm Brown stole the spotlight on offense spelling Todd Gurley admirably en route to scoring two of the Rams’ three touchdowns.
But there was perhaps no player more impressive for the Rams on Sunday than ILB Cory Littleton who led the team in tackles (14) and passes defensed (2), forced and recovered a fumble, and had the team’s lone interception — which stalled the Panthers’ offense late in the fourth quarter and was integral in helping the Rams secure victory.
Littleton’s stellar Sunday has garnered attention from fans, his coaches, and the media. On Tuesday, Pro Football Focus highlighted the best single-game performances from around the league and assembled their Week 1 NFL “Team of the Week.” His grade (94.3) made him not only the highest graded defensive player, but earned him the highest mark of any player in the entirety of the league.
As someone who has made a name for himself as a special teams ace early in his career, we’ve seen Littleton on the PFF Team of the Week before. This time he makes it for his work on defense, though, after a performance that saw him finish the game with four tackles resulting in a defensive stop, a pass breakup and an interception.
As aforementioned, Littleton made a few critical plays in this game. On the Panthers’ opening series having effectively marched downfield and into field goal range, Littleton stalled the drive by punching the ball out of WR D.J. Moore’s hands and promptly recovered the fumble. Later in the game - with less than six minutes to play - Littleton picked off Cam Newton at the Carolina 43, returning it 26 yards and inside the red zone, positioning the Rams in prime scoring position.
Littleton has proven to be a tremendous asset in pass coverage over the past two seasons, and if his league-high Week 1 grade wasn’t impressive enough, PFF’s Mike Renner noted that his coverage grade from Sunday was one of the highest they’ve seen in over a decade, stating “He’s had one of the best games we’ve ever seen from a linebacker in the PFF era.” (full video below).
Rams Head Coach Sean McVay fielded a bevy of questions following the game, many of them aimed at Gurley, Brown and how the flow of the game, not a nagging knee injury for Gurley, dictated the ball-carrier. It was nearing the conclusion of the post-game press conference that a question finally arose about Littleton’s day, and it was evident that his performance hadn’t gone unnoticed:
Just great athleticism. You know a guy that can really compete — defending the run, defending the pass. He’s always active, and he made a big pick for us in a crunch-time situation that ended up being a big play for us to ultimately win that game.
It’s been no secret that the Rams biggest area of weakness on either side of the ball has been the inside linebacker position where the team lacks quality depth. Surrounded by former first-round draft selections (six to be exact), the Rams’ two starting inside linebacker positions are manned by a 7th-round pick and an undrafted free agent. To Littleton’s credit, however, he was one of only two Rams (along with safety John Johnson III) to play all 67 of the team’s defensive snaps on Sunday.
Sometimes it’s the players you least expect that make the largest impact in any given game. But if the undrafted free agent turned special teams ace continues to improve upon an exceptional start to his 2019 season at inside linebacker, it’s only a matter of time before he’s recognized as a household name and not simply a diamond in the rough.